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Was Enfield traffic stop and DUI arrest Retaliation?:

Defendant’s lawyer charges payback over 2011 brutality suit

Journal Inquirer
Published: June 2, 2018

ENFIELD — An Enfield man’s 2016 drunken driving arrest was pure “payback” for a brutality lawsuit he filed against the department years earlier, his lawyer contends.

Police videos of Ronnie T. Salas Jr.’s arrest show he was evasive, angry, and uncooperative during the 2016 arrest.

But dashboard camera footage raises questions about why he was stopped to begin with. Also, one hour of video from when Salas is in custody at the police station is blank due to what police described as a technical glitch.

Salas sued local police over a claim of brutality in a 2011 arrest. Five years later, he was arrested in retaliation and charged with drunken driving and other charges, his lawyer A. Paul Spinella said.

Officer Allison Mount wrote in her incident report that she observed Salas, 24, driving erratically before she turned on her cruiser’s dashcam and decided to make the stop.

The Journal Inquirer obtained the cruiser and police station videos through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The dashcam video, which lacks audio, shows Salas struggling as Mount and Officer Michael Cotrone handcuff him and put him in a police cruiser.

When police asked him to take a breath test for alcohol, he refused, according to Mount’s report.

The police station videos, which do contain audio, show Mount reading the standard advisory about the test from a few feet away, to which Salas replied: “I didn’t hear a word she said.” He then asked to review the document, and said he needed reading glasses to do so.

According to the video, Salas never verbally refused the test, but also never took it.

Had the case gone to trial, a jury could have concluded that Salas didn’t want to take the test because he knew it would show he was drunk. If he had refused outright, that could have been used as evidence against him.

‘Deeply mistrusts police’

Spinella, who represented Salas in the 2011 lawsuit, the 2016 drunken driving case, and his recent threat filed in February to sue over that arrest, said his client’s conduct resulted from a deep mistrust of the police.

Salas was “wrongfully charged” in the 2011 case, as was his brother, and went through long court proceedings over it, Spinella said.

“What you see is someone who is scared and nervous,” Spinella said of the police video.

Salas’ lawsuit over the 2011 arrest was one of 10 others alleging brutality by Enfield police officers, particularly Matthew Worden, who has since resigned as a result of one of those cases. Salas settled his case for $25,000.

On the eve of the criminal trial for the 2016 drunken driving arrest, Salas accepted a plea bargain. He pleaded guilty to two minor infractions — creating a public disturbance and refusing to show his driver’s license and registration — and was fined $210 and court costs. He acquired no criminal record, and the charges of drunken driving and interfering with police were dropped.

In the police station video Salas can be heard protesting loudly and at great length that he had been arrested for no reason.

He is even shown dropping to the floor at one point, forcing Mount and Sgt. Douglas Montas to drag him into a cellblock by his arms as he yelled: “Why are you grabbing me like this?”

In the video, Salas doesn’t appear to slur his words or talk unusually fast or slow for someone clearly upset.

Driving erratically?

The traffic stop occurred Sunday, Aug. 21, 2016, at 2:13 a.m. — minutes after closing time for Connecticut bars.

The law requires traffic stops to be based on “reasonable suspicion,” a lower standard than the “probable cause” required for an arrest.

Mount’s written report gives two reasons for the stop: driving erratically, and having no light on the rear license plate.

According to Mount’s report, Salas applied his brakes several times “for no apparent reason” and was “creeping slowly down the road” in a 30 mph zone as his vehicle exited Interstate 91 north to the Elm Street ramp.

The dashboard camera starts recording before she pulls him over as Mount’s cruiser sits, third in line, behind Salas’ black SUV and another car at the intersection of Elm and Enfield streets.

The video includes a display that can fairly approximate Salas’ speed as a maximum of 23 mph on North Main Street, which has a posted 25 mph speed limit.

“As the vehicle turned right out of my headlight path, I observed that the rear registration plate was not illuminated,” Mount wrote.

The dashcam video shows the vehicle’s license plate illuminated at all times, however, even when there are no headlight beams shining on it.

Motivated by retaliation?

Spinella said Salas was the vehicle’s registered owner and Mount could have learned that through a computer records check while following him. Even so, someone else could have been driving.

Mount pulled up behind Salas as he parked in the rear lot of a four-family house on Lincoln Street, the dashcam video shows. Officer Michael Cotrone, who had arrived on the scene and approached the SUV with Mount, asked Salas twice for his license and registration, but Salas refused to provide them or to identify himself, Mount wrote in her report.

Salas had two friends with him in the SUV that night, and another person came out of the apartment building after the stop.

Spinella said witnesses reported that Mount wouldn’t take the license when Salas offered it, even though Salas ultimately pleaded guilty to failing to provide his license or registration and didn’t take advantage of legal mechanisms that would have enabled him to avoid admitting guilt.

Mount said in her report that she eventually identified Salas, at the police station, from a driver’s license in his wallet.

Police Chief Alaric J. Fox, who was recently hired to head the department, declined to answer any questions about the stop, saying it would not be “prudent” as Salas had filed a notice of intent to sue the town.

Did superior know Salas?

Spinella said one of the witnesses asked Montas, the supervisory officer at the scene and the officer at the station who helped drag Salas into the cellblock, if he knew who the person being arrested was. Montas replied that he knew the man was Salas, Spinella said, and that he knew about his past lawsuit.

However, Salas already was under arrest when the comment was made, and no known evidence indicates that Montas was involved in the decision to make the arrest. The dashcam, which covered a wide field of view, showed only Mount and Cotrone as Salas was taken into custody.

Police declined to verify who the supervisor at the scene was, citing pending litigation. The identification comes from Spinella.

Witnesses also told Spinella that Montas asked Mount why Salas was being arrested, and said her reply was that he was speeding, contradicting both her written report and the dashcam video.

In addition, it would have been impossible for Mount not to know about Salas’ former lawsuit as there was a “cohort” of seven or eight police officers sued in the brutality cases, Spinella said.

Former Police Chief Carl Sferrazza was named as a defendant in a number of the brutality suits and was still chief in 2016.

Close enough to observe?

In her report, Mount wrote that she smelled alcohol on Salas’ breath and that his eyes “were bloodshot, very red, and appeared glossy.”

“Salas was talking very fast, loud, and appeared angry that we were there and kept talking over Officer Cotrone and I,” she wrote of the scene in the parking lot. “At this time I believed the driver was under the influence of alcohol and drugs and needed to conduct an investigation.”

Spinella argues that Mount was 10 to 15 feet away from Salas and couldn’t smell his breath or clearly see his eyes before she “rushed him and grabbed him.”

The dashcam video initially shows Mount some distance from Salas, but then shows she walked up to him and didn’t “rush” him.

However, Salas’ vehicle partially blocked the dashcam’s view of the arrest scene. In addition, Cotrone was standing between Salas and the camera when Salas was being handcuffed.

As a result, although the video does not show precisely what happened, Mount appears to have handcuffed Salas soon after she reached him.

Spinella also said police failed to conduct roadside sobriety tests on Salas.

The video makes it clear, though, that Salas was uncooperative, and police need subjects to follow direction in roadside tests.

Mount wrote in her report that the interfering charge was based on Salas’ refusal to get back in the SUV with the passengers “for officer safety.”

The video shows that Salas continued to stand outside the driver’s side of the SUV after his front-seat passenger had gotten back in and closed the door.

Copyright ©, 2016, Hartford Courant